UCA News
Benedict Rogers

Ten years of my Catholic faith journey

I will be praying for Myanmar when I go to Mass this coming Sunday, with sadness at what is happening there now
Published: March 31, 2023 11:37 AM GMT

Updated: March 31, 2023 01:43 PM GMT

Benedict Rogers speaks to a group of demonstrators gathered in solidarity with the people of Hong Kong in Parliament Square in London, on June 16, 2019

Benedict Rogers speaks to a group of demonstrators gathered in solidarity with the people of Hong Kong in Parliament Square in London, on June 16, 2019. (Photo: hongkongwatch.org)

This Palm Sunday will mark my tenth anniversary as a Catholic. Ten years ago, I was received into the Church in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Yangon, by the Archbishop of Yangon and now Myanmar’s Cardinal, Charles Bo, with British parliamentarian Lord Alton as my sponsor and godfather.

As the waters of baptism were poured over me, and the cathedral bells chimed, I knew I had come home.

The journey began two years earlier, with an unexpected conversation with Cardinal Bo. I had asked, more out of curiosity than intention, what someone who is already a Christian of another tradition would need to do if they wanted to become a Catholic. Cardinal Bo gave an answer that was surprisingly simple on one level, and yet profound on another.

“When a person can accept the teachings of the Catholic Church, they are ready to become a Catholic,” he said. Then he added: “If you ever find yourself in that position, I would receive you into the Church here in Myanmar.”

That had two impacts.

First, I thought it was a beautiful invitation, given my longstanding association with Myanmar. For more than 20 years I have worked on human rights for Myanmar, and traveled to the country more than 50 times, both inside and along the war-torn borders with Thailand, China, India, and Bangladesh. I had written books about Myanmar, and worked closely with religious and ethnic leaders, including Cardinal Bo, to promote peace and justice and defend religious freedom.

"At the end of two years, I knew that the Catholic Church was where I was meant to be"

But second, I thought that in itself is not a good enough reason for becoming a Catholic — just because I like and admire one particular archbishop, or have a profound affection for his country. And so, if I wanted to take Cardinal Bo’s invitation seriously and give it the respect it deserves — even if, in the end, I did not decide to take it up — I needed to investigate seriously.

And so began a two-year-long journey of exploration, which involved reading papal encyclicals, great spiritual teachers and theologians, talking to Catholic friends in Britain, meeting with my local parish priest, and eventually making an Ignatian retreat at Campion Hall, Oxford.

I was inspired by, among others, the works of Scott Hahn, who had made a similar journey from evangelical Christianity to Catholicism, Malcolm Muggeridge, George Weigel, GK Chesterton, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Thomas Merton, Pope St John Paul II and perhaps especially Pope Benedict XVI, who was still the pontiff when I was on this adventure. I also read, cover-to-cover, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and most encyclicals from 1889 onwards.

At the end of two years, I knew that the Catholic Church was where I was meant to be, so I contacted Cardinal Bo and said, ‘If your invitation is still open, I am ready.’

We agreed to do it on Palm Sunday 2013 so that Lord Alton could accompany me. Initially, I was unsure whether I should choose a new patron saint or not, because I was named Benedict by my parents and that seemed a good enough name to me, particularly as I shared it with the pope at the time — or so I thought.

In the end, though I chose Cardinal Bo’s saint, St. Charles Borromeo, out of respect for the man who inspired me into the faith.

On the day itself, friends from lots of different backgrounds came to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon to join the celebration. An assortment of Myanmar Buddhist and Muslim friends gathered together with Myanmar Christians from Protestant traditions, from diverse ethnic groups, alongside various foreign friends, some of whom were lapsed Catholics who had not set foot in a church in many years. One of them joked that she should not go to confession, otherwise, she would be there all night.

I was deeply touched that so many people came for the occasion, and felt it symbolized my own passion for “unity in diversity” and for defending and promoting freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere, of all religions or none, always.

"I have never once looked back, and never had any second thoughts"

About six weeks before I was due to be received into the Church, Pope Benedict XVI sent shockwaves around the world when he became the first pope in 600 years to resign. And just 11 days before I came into the Church, Pope Francis was elected. So my first decade as a Catholic has been intertwined with Francis’ papacy.

Over the past ten years, my love for the Church — and, more importantly, for the faith and for our Lord — has strengthened and deepened. I have never once looked back, and never had any second thoughts. There is much about our current pope that I love, admire and appreciate.

His emphasis on mercy, with a Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016, struck a deep chord in me. His focus on reaching out to the “peripheries” of the world — which led to the appointment of Cardinal Bo and other cardinals from smaller, poorer countries in the developing world — is to be applauded.

His championing of justice, the poor and the marginalized, including persistently speaking out for Myanmar and especially the Rohingyas, is profoundly appreciated. Indeed, in 2017 he became the first pope ever to visit Myanmar, and I was privileged to be in the country for his visit. The motto for that papal visit was “Love and Peace,” and that speaks for itself.

My journey has drawn on a broad range of the Church’s spiritual traditions. I have stayed in Benedictine monasteries, talked with Dominican friends, met with Opus Dei, been inspired by Carmelites, and been befriended by Salesians. But having been guided by a Jesuit spiritual director and having made several Ignatian retreats, I am pleased that we have our first-ever Jesuit pope.

I have not and will not get embroiled in the broader critique of Francis’ decade as pontiff, for several reasons: first, as a ten-year-old Catholic I still have much to learn, and want to approach the big questions facing the Church with humility; second, because much of what Francis is doing I find very appealing; and third, because if I am going to be at all critical, I would rather focus on the one issue which I know something about and do have reason to be concerned, and that is the Vatican’s China policy over the past decade.

I have written about the Vatican’s China policy multiple times elsewhere and so I won’t repeat my concerns here, but that has been the one issue that, in my first ten years as a Catholic, has caused me deep concern.

The pope’s near-silence on the genocide of the Uyghurs, the persecution of Christians and Falun Gong in China, forced organ harvesting, the dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms and the atrocities in Tibet troubles me deeply.

That said, I was pleased to see Pope Francis meet Hong Kong’s courageous Cardinal Joseph Zen at Benedict XVI’s funeral, and the Vatican call out Beijing’s breach of their agreement on the appointment of bishops and hope perhaps there is the beginning of an awakening in Rome to the dangers of the Chinese Communist Party regime.

Ten years on, I can no longer go to Myanmar, my spiritual home. The appalling military coup two years ago has plunged the country into a new nightmare of brutal dictatorship and civil war.

Pope Francis has continued to show a particular concern for Myanmar since the coup, speaking out regularly and holding a dedicated Mass for the Myanmar community in Rome, and we must all do everything we can to ensure Myanmar is not forgotten.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that I happen to be in New Delhi on Palm Sunday, and so even though I cannot be in Myanmar, I am as close as I can physically be to the country I love. I will be praying for Myanmar when I go to Mass in Delhi’s Sacred Heart Cathedral this coming Sunday, with sadness at what is happening there now, but gratitude for the journey I began there a decade or more ago, and hope for a better future.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

Help UCA News to be independent
Dear reader,
Lent is the season during which catechumens make their final preparations to be welcomed into the Church.
Each year during Lent, UCA News presents the stories of people who will join the Church in proclaiming that Jesus Christ is their Lord. The stories of how women and men who will be baptized came to believe in Christ are inspirations for all of us as we prepare to celebrate the Church's chief feast.
Help us with your donations to bring such stories of faith that make a difference in the Church and society.
A small contribution of US$5 will support us continue our mission…
William J. Grimm
UCA News

Also Read

UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia